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Sunday, May 31, 2009


At two of my recent book signings people asked how I did research for my books and how I was able to keep things current for teens. Well, first off, I am the oldest of five kids and my youngest sister is graduating high school next week. We still like a lot of the same movies, music and fashion trends. When I was editing Shrinking Violet I would often go to her for word choice, fashion advice and other details that can really make or break the believability of the book.
Also, in many ways I have carried my teen years with me. It’s no mistake that I write for this age. High school was the best and worst years of my life, filled with so many emotions, friends and non-friends. I like to read about teens and watch movies with teen characters. This all falls into the research category too.
I also taught middle school for a while and tutored kids of all ages. Being around kids in a learning environment really allowed me to pick up on their fears, desires and basic mannerisms.
Nowadays, I often tote my laptop with me to my local Starbucks and eavesdrop on teens just hanging out as I write. Their conversations make for great background noise. But most importantly, I really enjoy being around teenagers and hearing what they have to say. I definitely believe that if I knew half of what I knew then about life that I know now, I wouldn’t have stressed so much. Of course, the only downside to that is I wouldn’t have much to write about!
I can definitely relate to a lot of the issues and anxieties that teens are dealing with. But ask me that when my own kids are in high school and see if I say the same thing—lol! But my most important advice of all is to keep it real!

Friday, May 29, 2009

How do your writing habits and your writing change during the summer?

As a few of my fellow bloggers have mentioned, summer brings incredible distractions such as actually wanting to be outside. Winter I'm happy to sit in my (sort of) warm office and write and look out the snow and do a Nelson-from-The-Simpsons "ha ha" at the people who have to go out there to get to work. Spring and summer bring gardening and jogs in the cemetery (yeah, I'm weird, but that's where I jog) and farmer's markets and other fabulous things. However eventually in Chicago at least it does get too hot and I'm happy to sit in my (sort of) air-conditioned office and write and "ha ha" at the people out there sweating.

Since I don't have kids, nothing changes too much about my routine. I just have to resist the outdoorsy distractions, but the biggest distraction of all is this:

This is the second time I've had a book come out in summer. Apparently July is my month, which is cool since it is my birthday month, so it feels like a birthday present.... Just a birthday present that comes with an insane amount of work. 

I still haven't figured out how to properly balance promoting a book and writing a new book. Last summer when I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone came out, I basically didn't write for a month or two. Not cool. I am a very grumpy person when I'm not getting enough writing in. So I'm trying to come up with a routine. I've been trying to do this for about nine months now to no avail, but I think I'm finally on to something.

When I complained recently about not being able to focus, my friend Tai sent me this great New York Times article about the science of concentration. It mentions a technique of spending the first hour and a half of your day on the thing that needs the most focus. So I've been getting up, making tea and breakfast, and heading to my office to write for an hour and half with my modem turned off. After the hour and a half when, according to the article, your mind starts to wander naturally, I take a break for roughly half an hour. The break could be lunch, a work out, gardening or it could be blogging, answering email or dealing with the promotional things I have to do. Worst case scenario if I get sucked into email and promotional stuff (I am a lot less disciplined at pulling myself out of that than pulling myself out of pleasant distractions), I got an hour and a half of solid writing done.

So that's the routine I'm planning to try out this summer. As for what kind of writing it will produce we'll see. But I am writing a book set in Los Angeles, so writing in hot, sunny weather seems like it will be a good thing!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How do your writing habits and your writing change during the summer?

During the rest of the year, I get up at 4:30 a.m. so I have two unbroken hours to write until 6:30, when my son gets up. After I take him to school, I have another seven hours to write or work at my freelance copyediting job.

In the summer, all that changes. I still get up at 4:30 a.m., but now I write frantically until 6:30, when a seven-year-old boy starts chasing the cat through the house with a Nerf gun. For the rest of the day, I write in fits and starts. I may come up with a few brilliant pages while I’m in the shower. I might scribble several paragraphs on a napkin while we’re at the BMX track. I may pay my son fifty cents to be quiet and read Stuart Little for an hour while I compose a chapter of eye-hurting brilliance. ("Mom, is there a Stuart Little 2? He never finds his friend Margalo and the book seems unfinished." He will be an editor yet. He will give the likes of E. B. White the what-for.)

And honestly, I kind of prefer a wacky schedule. My writing process is controlled chaos anyway. I write some of the first chapter, some of the last chapter, and some of the middle of a novel, in that order. I never know what part will come to me on a certain day. It seems fitting that I write the whole of a novel during the whole of my daily life.

Of course, at some point I have to sit down and concentrate and read through the whole thing, in order, to see if it all makes sense.

That will be when my son goes to swim camp.

As for the writing itself, I think there are definitely differences between novels I write in the summer and novels I write at other times of year. Novels I write in the summer contain a seven-year-old-son-type character. For instance, last summer I wrote The Ex Games, which will be published on October 6. The heroine of that novel has a little brother who follows her around, making up rap lyrics about her. He also succeeds in slipping a whoopee cushion under her while her ex-boyfriend is nearby. In other words, when my son is around, my romantic comedies degrade into fart noises.

Monday, May 25, 2009

No, this isn't a postcard or a screen saver. This is where I just spent 9 days sailing around the British Virgin Islands - just me, my husband and my best friend and her boyfriend. And this is an actual picture from my camera.

I've just returned and my brain is still in vacation mode, but here's something that's been bothering me all week.

I read 5 books on vacation - all teen books, the oldest being from 1999, the latest a print proof for a book that hasn't even come out yet.

And some I loved, some I liked and some not so much. But you know what I hated the most? Blushing. Yes, I have never read so much about "flaming cheeks," "prickling cheeks," "red burning cheeks," blah, blah. I am so sick of characters being described by their ability to blush. Honestly, I can't think of a single person who I have witnessed blush to such an extent. Yet it seems to be the physical trait of choice for teen girls who are feeling flustered/embarassed/caught off guard/attracted to someone/stupid/inept, etc.
I hereby boycott all flaming cheeks in every book I write. I don't think I've ever blushed in my life. I've never seen my best friends blush, and believe me, they've had plenty to blush about. Enough with the blushing. I shall seek new innovative ways to physically demonstrate an emotion - or not.
To think that teen girls are simply a hotbed of cheeky blood vessels is to do them a supreme injustice to their emotional range.
Just my opinion. And, for the record, that's a vacation sunburn on my face, not a blush.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How do your writing habits and your writing change during the summer?

As someone who suffers from WWDD (Writing While Distracted Disorder), summer is full of hazards.

Take the simple act of letting the dogs out to play on a May morning. I lift my face to the sun, breathe in some fresh air, and…are those weeds in my rock garden? No way! Three hours later, drenched with weed-pulling sweat, I stagger in to take a shower, slather lotion on my sunburn, and collapse in my favorite chair for a short (two hour) nap. Another day bites the dust.

Some days are worse than that. On my way home from work last Tuesday I stopped at the library to check on the status of FAIREST OF THEM ALL, which I’d left for the library director to review. She gave me the good news that she’s adding it to their collection and scheduled me for a library visit. Then she handed me her card and asked me to e-mail her some information. I drove home anticipating my first library visit and reminding myself what I needed to send her.

After the dog greeting frenzy subsided, I turned on my computer to make some notes. But a thrashing noise caught my attention. From experience I know that unusual noises in the house equal wild creatures dragged through the pet door. I started the search. Was a bunny behind the bookcase? A weasel wedged under the sofa? Looking up, I saw a male oriole fluttering against the window in our two-story entryway. From the bird slobber on the glass, I knew the poor guy had been there for a while.

Still wearing my skirt and sweater, I hauled the dusty stepladder out of the garage and wrestled it under the window. Too short. Back to the garage for the fishnet. I am not a fan of ladders, and juggling the fishnet in one hand made it that much worse. I planted my shaky foot on the top step--the one with the warning not to step there—and stood on tiptoe to reach the flailing bird. Clutching the window ledge with one hand, I swiped at him. Nothing but air. He zoomed into a second floor bedroom. I scampered—okay, minced--down the ladder and dashed up the stairs where I found him hanging on the screen. Now I had him.

Not quite.

When he saw the net coming, he soared to the guest room window. I scooped, and he flew to a picture on the wall. I nudged him off the corner of the frame. He zipped back to the window. After the third trip, I finally netted him. But he wrapped his toes in the net and refused to let go. His toes looked so small and fragile I was afraid to pry them apart. I loosened my hold on him in hopes that he’d loosen his grip on the net.

Whoosh! Back to the window.

After several more rounds of window tag, I netted him again—without the toe tangle. The poor little oriole was panting. I was panting harder. Holding him gently but firmly I carried him to the deck, gave him a drink in the birdbath, and watched him soar into the woods. The next day he was back at our sunflower feeder shooting dirty looks at Sebastian the cat.

See, great intentions shot to pieces. And, BTW, I have no idea what information I was supposed to send the librarian.

An isolated incident? I wish. Another time I'll tell you about the raccoon in the laundry room, the garter snake on my kitchen faucet, the groundhog behind the TV or….

Further BTW—this blog was interrupted while I ran water in the goldfish pond, watered the plants under the sunroom, weeded PART of the rock garden in the backyard, filled the bird feeders, and cut asparagus for lunch.

But there's always next winter, right?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"How do your writing habits and your writing change during the summer?"

I'd love to start off this blog by saying that I'm getting ready to pack two huge suitcases and load them in the car along with my family and head off to my gorgeous beach home on the west coast of Florida. Yes, the place where I will write the great teen MTV novel while basking in the sun and sipping on iced cold lemonade. But alas, the beach house is only a figment of my imagination--at least for now. So really, how does my writing change during the summer? My kids get out of school the beginning of June so my writing time will definitely have to be scheduled into every free moment that I can hold on too. I like to set weekly writing goals in the summer so that I feel accomplished while I am enjoying plenty of outdoor fun. Last summer I finished my second novel, Indigo Blues, which I recently sold, so that was definitely a good feeling!

Even though the summer is usually about flexibility and fun, if I keep my writing goals structured then I have the perfect balance of work and play. So this summer I plan to revise an older novel and get about halfway through a new novel. I will take the first month to revise, probably working a few hours a day and then the second half of the summer will be spent plunging face first into my new novel. I am really looking forward to both these endeavors. So can I do it? Stay tuned and find out… Oh, the self-pressure is on!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Book giveaways!

Several bloggers have posted interviews with me and are giving away copies of my books. To register to win, all you have to do is make a comment!

To win copies of Going Too Far and The Boys Next Door, comment at the Bare Ass Cottage.

To win copies of Going Too Far, The Boys Next Door, and Major Crush, comment at Fantastic Book Reviews.

Thanks to the bloggers for hosting me, and good luck to everyone who enters!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Big 3-0

So yesterday it dawned on me that I'm turning 30 in two months. Now it is less than two months. July 13th is the big day. No *sigh*. No *gulp*. Honestly, I'm feeling more like *shrug*.

The landmark birthdays have always been kind of a let down to me.

When I turned 16 it was 105 degrees in Chicago and this did some sort of freaky thing to our car horn so it wouldn't honk and because of this, I was not allowed to take the driver's test. I did not get my license until 3 days after my sweet 16.

When I turned 18, I came home from Madison and all my friends were totally mean to me (except my BFF who was just acting sad and confused). Yeah I'd changed and they had some stuff going on, but instead of *talking* to me about it, they were just totally rude to me and the friends I'd brought from Madison and basically ruined my birthday.

When I turned 21, I went up to the Wisconsin Dells ummm largely because I knew I wouldn't get carded in Madison since I'd be pretending to be 21 since I was 18 (hey I never said I was a good role model, but I'm always honest... perhaps to a fault), but then I didn't get carded there either! Not when I bought beer and not when we went to the Casino... which turned out to be 18 and over.

So yeah, 30, I'm just not very worked up about it. 
My therapist (yes I was in therapy for much of my late teens/early 20s--again honest to a fault) once told me that everyone is different when it comes to what age causes the big emotional crisis. My mom got a little weird about 40. My dad flipped about 50 (though I guess men have to go through a very unpleasant Dr examination when they are 50 so I can get that). When my ex-boyfriend turned 30 he freaked. Like seriously freaked. Turning 30 was basically all he talked about from the day he turned 29 forward. It was the most annoying thing ever to listen to him go on and on about how he was going to be old and try to console him that he wasn't old. UGH! In fact that's probably how it came up with my shrink. I was probably venting.

So a big part of the reason that I'm not freaking out is because I don't want to be that guy.  And also because I'm NOT that guy. My ex had all these unrealistic expectations for what his life should be like at 30 and he was completely unsatisified with how it was. 

My expectations for 30 have varied. When I was young, I figured I'd have a career, be married, and have a baby or two because that was where my mom was at at 30. When I was a teenager, I was pretty certain I'd be dead. Seriously, I was one of those nihilistic crazy kids. I really did think I'd be dead by 21. In fact 21 might have been my crisis year because I woke up and realized, "I'm not dead, maybe I better try to do something with my life."

And I did. I stopped partying and went back to school and now I look at my life on the verge of 30 and it's in a great place. I'm getting married in October to a wonderful guy. My writing career may not be paying the bills yet, but it exists. My second book, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, will come out a week and a day after my birthday. I really can't complain.

So I don't know why I'm all *meh* about the actual birthday celebration. I guess I just don't know what I want. A few weeks ago I told my fiance to surprise me, maybe a surprise party, maybe a surprise with friends, I don't know. Then last night (this was the thing that reminded me of my birthday), it was announced that Green Day is playing Chicago on my birthday. I sent my fiance an FYI text. Seeing a show on my birthday does sound like the perfect celebration of my life (if he or someone else can afford to pay for the ticket. I don't even want to know how much they are. Do you know what my FRONT ROW Lollapalooza ticket in 1995 cost? 28$ and the ticket fees were only 4$), but I just don't know.

Give me advice, should I push the Green Day thing, the party thing, or just tell him to rope my best friend into it and between the two of them trust them to come up with the perfect surprise?

What was your best birthday or milestone birthday, it might give me ideas!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

At the crossroads

No, I’m not waiting for the devil. That only happens in rock’n’roll. I’m at a crossroads in my writing. And since the publishing industry moves notoriously slowly, I might be waiting a year or more for the devil to show up.

Instead, what I do when I’m at a crossroads in my writing (or just plain stuck) is read how-to-write-a-book books. Lots of these give advice on a specific element of novels. Some that I’ve read in the past few weeks are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. But my favorite how-to-write-a-book books are part instruction manual, part memoir by writers who have Made It.

The memoir I read most recently was Stephen King’s On Writing. Of all the how-to books, this one’s probably cited most often in the how-to literature, next to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (which I found depressing, because she is even crazier than I am when it comes to writing = not helpful) and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (which, as has been widely noted, breaks many of its own grammar and style rules). I’ve resisted reading King because I don’t like his genre, I did not enjoy reading The Shining, and I am tired of people telling me I can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so in On Writing. I will use adverbs if I damn well please, and if and when I decide not to use them anymore, I will let you know.

I'm glad I finally broke down and read it. The book starts with his early life, which he admits he remembers only patches of. The patches occur when he endured a painful medical procedure or vomited. All of which you would expect from Stephen King, and if you were reading this book solely because you were his fan and wanted to know how his writing got so twisted, well, here’s your answer. After he used the bathroom in the woods and wiped with poison ivy, I skipped ahead a few sections.

The payoff for me was the last two-thirds of the book, in which he talks about his writing preferences (ex: no adverbs) and the writing life. Here is where I find solace in these sorts of books, whether or not I’m a fan of the author. The particulars of writing preferences may be different, but writers come to those preferences the same way, by experience, by writing lots of novels, many of which are never published. And the particulars of the writing life differ wildly, but the devotion to writing every day, and feeling a little sick if you do not--those are always the same.

Another of these books in my recent reading spree was Dennis Palumbo’s Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. Now, this title promises a lot, and I don’t think the book delivered. Basically the message is that if you feel unloved and undervalued in your writing career, you should channel those feelings into your novels, and write characters with the universal feelings of being unloved and undervalued. The message was not exactly supported by the story of the author’s friend, Let’s Call Him Larry, who was a brilliant writer but never could catch a break in the industry, gradually got old and fat and bitter, lost all his friends, and finally found himself at the end of his rope, in an interview as a college writing teacher. The professor interviewing him was about to dismiss him when a textbook fell off the table and opened to what it said was one of the finest examples of TV comedy writing--a Norman Lear comedy episode that Larry had actually penned!!! Hooray, Larry got the job! Palumbo is holding this up as a positive example of sticktuitiveness: you think you are working for the writing, but occasionally the writing will pay you back in an act of kindness. However, I did not see this as a positive example. It made me want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head in the middle of the morning.

But again, I loved hearing Palumbo’s own, often hilarious, accounts of his experience writing, mostly as a screenwriter for TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter (which I loved so dearly when I was 6, and probably taught me a lot about comedy). If you have ever gotten a “good rejection” from an agent or editor that said she enjoyed your story and might like to see it again if only you changed all the bridesmaids in the wedding to space assassins, or something equally apropos of nothing, you will get a good laugh out of this book. (Which will fortify you for the story of Larry.)

My unexpected favorite was Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell. Morrell wrote the novel First Blood that later became, more or less, the Rambo movie series. At first Morrell seems inordinately proud of Rambo, and if you have not read his novels but remember the conservative pro-military fervor that surrounded the movies in the 1980s, you might find his pride a bit off-putting. But he goes on to detail his struggle toward publication, the strange things that happen to your books when they are made into movies, and horror stories about book signings that I previously could not have imagined, even in my heightened state of paranoia about public appearances and the audience that does not show up to them. I particularly loved his explanation of why he prefers not to write in first person, which I found logical but utterly wrong, something only an English professor (him) or a longtime English graduate student (me) would come up with, because we think too hard. Even more so than while reading the Palumbo and King books, I felt that Morrell and I are traveling the same path. He is way ahead of me; and Rambo, formerly following him, is now in front of him and clearing his path with a machete; and I may never reach the spot on the path where Morrell and Rambo are standing now--but it’s the same rocky path uphill both ways, and it’s comforting to see that traveling it is not impossible.

My critique partner Cathy loves how-to-write-a-book books even more than I do. My critique partner Vicki never touches the stuff. How about you? What are some of your faves? For good or ill, has a writing book ever changed your direction at the crossroads?

Friday, May 8, 2009

An Influenza B-list Celebrity

The three weeks since the launch of FAIREST OF THEM ALL have been amazing. I've felt like an A-list celebrity rushing from book signings to writing workshops to events held in my honor. What an incredible thrill!

The ride began on Saturday, April 18, with a book launch hosted by CRM extraordinaire, Cindy Sharp, at Barnes and Noble. The first best thing was a huge banner hanging from the store's second floor railing. And when I sat at my designated table, students, friends, and strangers stopped by to offer their congratulations and buy my book. By the end of the evening, 246 copies of FOTA had gone out the door.

The following Monday morning I arrived at the Iowa Public Television building for my first ICN broadcast. Talking to students, teachers, and librarians I could only see in a TV screen on the far side of the room was surreal. But I managed to get through two broadcasts without any major mistakes--I think.

I spent the next weekend absorbing inspiration and information at an SCBWI-Iowa conference in Davenport. For the first time, I had a book to offer for sale, and I was looking forward to my debut out-of-town book signing at the Northpark Mall B&N Sunday afternoon. But FOTA sold out at the conference, and a second shipment of books didn't arrive in time. So I signed bookplates on Sunday instead of books.

Fast forward through the next week's writing classes to Friday night. My writing group threw me a book launch party complete with food, wine, friends--many wearing tiaras--and a FAIREST OF THEM ALL sash the exact color of my book cover. I had a marvelous time chatting, hugging, eating and drinking, and signing books. What a night!

Saturday morning I was off to Adel for the annual Iowa Book Festival. My throat was feeling scratchy, but I made it through my two morning presentations. Then I drove to Jordan Creek Mall for another B&N book signing. I capped the day by returning to Adel for an authors' panel discussion in the afternoon.

But Sunday morning was a whole different story, and not a good one. My head swam, my body ached, and I coughed like a TB patient. The celebrity lifestyle had taken its toll and left me with Influenza B--not the headline-making flu, but more flu than I could handle.

With three school visits scheduled this week, I had to get better. Merrill Middle School, where I'd taught for most of my career, had scheduled all day Thursday with writing workshops and class visits plus a reception after school. I was going to be there if I had to drag an IV pole!

Thursday morning I heaved my achy body out of bed and headed for Merrill. The school library was adorned with a huge banner celebrating my book and me, and the staff and students gave me the red carpet treatment. Somehow my voice and legs held out (Thank you, adrenaline!) as I visited classes, answered questions, and presented four writing workshops. The reception after school made every bit of it worthwhile.

That's the story of my first three weeks as an MTV author. I can't wait to see what's going to happen during the next three. Just no more flu--PLEASE!